'Staying awake at the plate' is about eating mindfully, more fully aware of your emotions, your behaviors, and your motivations around eating. It’s about living in the present moment with your eating behavior rather than worrying about the past or obsessing about the future.
Every idea we’re exploring in MyBodyMySelf centers around becoming aware of your eating behavior and figuring out what works and doesn’t work for you. Mindful eating is what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habits, defines as a keystone habit – a certain habit that’s actually more important than other habits because it transforms everything around it. Today's discussion explores the large and small ways mindfulness can transform your eating.
Noticing your desire to eat and why you are eating
Mindfulness comes into play with eating on three main levels, creating an awareness around (1) your desire to eat, (2) what food you want, and (3) eating itself. The first step in becoming aware of your eating behavior is noticing when and why you’re reaching for that cookie on the counter. That is the moment when you can insert a pause and ask yourself:
Am I hungry?
What am I doing?
Do I want to be doing this?
If you can locate this point when you are reaching for food and realize you are not hungry, you have become conscious of some of the intention behind your eating behavior. At that point you are not simply following a desire to eat, but have become aware of your ability to choose your own path.
One key difference between women who do and those who don’t struggle with body image and eating, often boils down to their awareness of what they actually eat -- their food accounting. This is the second level where mindfulness comes into play, when you are accounting for which food you choose and the amount you are eating. This is the point you use your intention for how you want to eat to help you make your food choices. In Cultivating Eating Intelligence, we discuss how to think about your own eating intentions and explore how to create your own Eating Intentions.
We are aiming for a calm, balanced food accounting at the moment of food choice and eating. What a balanced food accounting looks like is better understood when looking at the mindshare spectrum, above. Mindshare is the space taken up in your mind thinking about your eating and your body. In the above graphic, the percentages are estimates of the total brain space the focus on eating and one's body could be taking up in a person's mind. Can you locate yourself on that continuum?
For a woman who suffers from anorexia, her food accounting could take up 100% of her mindshare. She has a clinical obsession with her weight and eating. Her logical side -- what her mind is telling her she should do to remain a certain size -- has overpowered her desire to eat. (Her logical side is confusing reality with her fantasies about her body, and that reality gap is why anorexia is a serious, mental illness.) As for her food accounting, at the moment she eats her entire day’s food intake and food choice loom so large in her mind that they have crowded out almost all other aspects of her life. She could tell you in very precise detail how many half grapes she's ingested this month, and how many she will allow herself in the coming days -- leaving no time or energy to focus on anything else.
Like a woman who suffers from anorexia, people who emotionally eat and then struggle with dieting also can spend a large percentage of mindshare on their body and eating. A woman who soothes her emotions with food puts her logical eating plan in the back seat while her emotional side 'drives the bus.' All women who soothe themselves with food have in common moments where they are 'zoned out' while eating; they absolutely couldn’t account for their food intake accurately. They often don't know how much they have eaten or, sometimes, they don't even know what they actually ate. They can have an uncanny feeling while they are eating emotionally -- like during a binge -- as if they are sleep-walking through the eating experience. This is a hallmark of emotional eating, a 'zoned out' or 'asleep at the plate' sensation when choosing food and when actually eating. Women who soothe their emotions with food often take an accounting break.
An balanced, mindful food accounting would be somewhere between an obsession with accounting and an accounting break. We’re looking for a balanced awareness of what you’re eating, when you're eating. At this ideal mindfulness, you wouldn't need to spend time measuring food, counting food minutia like calories, carbs, or points, or weighing the food (or yourself) constantly. But you would need to be aware of how you want to eat -- maybe using your personal eating guidelines if having a logical structure is appealing to you. And, you would need to hold onto that awareness when choosing food and while eating.
And when NOT eating, it would be a great mindful practice to STOP thinking about food and focus on other joys in your life.
Mindful dialogue between logic and emotion
What that ideal awareness looks like would be different for different people. It is really a mindful dialogue between your logical side and your emotional side. Mentally healthy eaters are able to balance this naturally, these parts of themselves are not out of touch. For these lucky people, their food accounting system 'ain't broke.'
But for those of us women who struggle with this -- who can be obsessed with food or who 'zone out' at the plate -- we might not know what a healthy dialogue could look like. For a restrictors, our logical side is overpowering our emotional side. For a soothers, our emotional side has left our logical side at the side of the road. We are simply out of balance and may have been living in this unbalanced state with our eating for decades. Our food accounting may be too obsessive or too emotion-focused. Here is where you could have a dialogue between your logical side and emotional side and decide to create a balanced decision that aligns with your values.
Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy . . .
The third part of mindfulness around food is really easy. Your job is to focus on pleasure and enjoy your food. When you’re eating, taste your food and relish the sensation of eating. In the book Savor the well-known Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh teaches people to mindfully eat by turning off distractions, like the phone, the computer, or the TV. He suggests that you taste each bite of food, slowly as if you are tasting it for the first time, engaging all your senses. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the famous mindfulness guru, does a raisin meditation exercise on his retreats where he has you eat one raisin for 3 minutes, chewing it slowly and tasting every bit. You can try this at home with a version of his raisin meditation in the Sources, below.
When you eat slowly and enjoy your food you are more likely to have your body register that you've eaten, and you are more likely to notice your satiation and fullness cues. And, when you savor your food and pay close attention to your pleasure, you are making sure you won't feel deprived in your eating. I like to give instructions in my workshops that your mindfulness homework is to "enjoy your next meal." My wish for you is that tonight's dinner is a slow, pleasurable, satisfying experience, with a bit of bread and maybe a little dessert.
- Susan Albers, Eating Mindfully, 2012 (2nd edition).
- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 2014.
- Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, 2015 (2nd edition).
- Jon Kabat-Zinn’s "Raisin Meditation" adapted by Clare Josa, click here.
- Thich Naht Hanh, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, 2010.
"Your body is precious. It is our vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care." --Buddha